The best thing about hard lessons is you don’t forget them.
Luke Jackson has been a first-round bust, a change-of-scenery candidate, a multi-time DFA victim and an absorber of social media venom. He’s been a forgettable name on and off the Braves roster in recent seasons. He made the opening-day roster in part due to injuries and his options being exhausted.
Yet he’s now a Braves closer and most consistent arm in the bullpen. And trust Jackson when he says it’s a blessing to be in such an unexpected position.
“I had an OK spring,” he said. “I squeaked by making the team, some injuries and stuff like that. I said to myself, ‘I’ll let baseball tell me if I’m good enough to play.’ If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be. I’ll go out there and have fun and put all the doubt aside and go for it.
“I’ve been really good, I’ve been really bad; over the course of time, it kind of wears you down. So I was finally like, go out there and enjoy it, see what the game tells me.”
The baseball gods were in his favor. It didn’t seem that way at first, when his opening-day appearance couldn’t have been worse. The Phillies slipped two hits beyond Braves defenders, and Jackson issued an intentional walk before Rhys Hoskins’ grand slam capped a nightmarish afternoon.
Jackson became the target of fans, the posterchild of a bullpen hemorrhaging runs as the Braves were swept on opening weekend. People questioned how Jackson remained on the roster, or even in the organization.
“I felt great that day too,” Jackson recalled. “I thought I made a great pitch that ended up being a grand slam. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t do much different. I made the pitches I wanted to make. You just get baseball’d sometimes. That was one of the days. I said if I kept making pitches like that, I’ll get outs.”
His optimist thinking proved accurate. Jackson rode a 15-inning scoreless streak until Thursday. He’s struck out 22 against walking seven. Opponents are hitting .224 against the 27-year-old righty. With Arodys Vizcaino done for the year and A.J. Minter struggling, Jackson became the primary option at closer – against all odds, to put it lightly.
“Right time, right place, right matchups,” as Jackson put it.
When his scoreless streak ended, via a game-tying David Peralta homer in the ninth, the clubhouse stood behind Jackson. It was truly his first slipup since Game 1, and manager Brian Snitker endorsed his closer.
Jackson rewarded that faith a day later. He entered the final frame with a 2-1 lead. He looked not only confident, but angry. He fired off 15 pitches, 10 for strikes. The first two Diamondbacks struck out. The third was retired on an innocent grounder.
It was Jackson’s third save in four chances. It was his first taste of bouncing back after seeing a ninth-inning lead vanish.
“I wanted to get back out there so bad” said Jackson, who received an inspiring pep talk from veteran reliever Jerry Blevins before taking the mound. “After outings like that, you just want to get back on the horse and show what you’ve got.”
Jackson invoked advice from catching coach Sal Fasano: The best thing about hard lessons is you don’t forget them. “And I’m not going to forget that one, I’ll tell you that now,” Jackson said.
That advice well-represents Jackson’s career. Texas took him in the first round of the 2010 draft. He debuted five years later and was traded to the Braves the following offseason. From December 2017 to June 2018, he was designated for assignment three times. No other team attempted to take him from the Braves.
Who knew that’d wind up the Braves’ benefit?
“You just never know,” Snitker said. “You see a lot of guys who get recycled and beat up, but they persevere and keep playing. Those were great experiences for him. He’s made changes, adjusted, adapted to situations. It’s never been about the arm. He’s always had a really good arm. He’s starting to figure some things out now.
“The more they play, the more they do it, the better they get at it if they can survive the turmoil that’s tossed at them. He’s made some changes in his arsenal, things like that. It’s worked out for him so far. Good to see. You root for a guy like that.”
It’s a classic redemption story, even if Jackson doesn’t maintain an excellent level of performance. That he’s still here, closing games for a team expected to be in it until the end, is a testament to his mental fortitude and faith.
He thanks his family, friends and teammates for having his back. He believes his “roller coaster” journey would be different without their encouragement. Through it all, he hasn’t let his success or failure change him; perhaps the most impressive part of his trek.
“Listen, baseball doesn’t define a lot of people,” Jackson said. “A lot of people think that. At the end of the long run, I just go out there and play, enjoy it. I love to compete and love to win games. Over the course of time, it just went the right way. Sometimes you have ups and downs, but it’s (about) riding the ups while you’re up.”
He’s riding the highest of his highs right now, and however it turns out, Jackson won’t waver in how he defines himself. He’ll just have learned a few lessons along the way.